Production of new nerve cells in the human brain is linked to learning and memory, according to a new study from the University of Florida. The research is the first to show such a link in humans. The findings, published online and in an upcoming print issue of the journal Brain, provide clues about processes involved in age- and health-related memory loss and reveal potential cellular targets for drug therapy.
The researchers studied how stem cells in a memory-related region of the brain, called the hippocampus, proliferate and change into different types of nerve cells. Scientists have been unsure of the significance of that process in humans.
“The findings suggest that if we can increase the regeneration of nerve cells in the hippocampus we can alleviate or prevent memory loss in humans,” said Florian Siebzehnrubl, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience in the UF College of Medicine, and co-first author of the study. “This process gives us what pharmacologists call a ‘druggable target.'”
Over the past two decades, several studies have shown that new nerve cells are generated in the hippocampus. In animal studies, disrupting nerve cell generation resulted in the loss of memory function, while increasing the production of new nerve cells led to improved memory.
To investigate whether the same is true in humans, the UF researchers, in collaboration with colleagues in Germany, studied 23 patients who had epilepsy and varying degrees of associated memory loss. They analyzed stem cells from brain tissue removed during epilepsy surgery, and evaluated the patients’ pre-surgery memory function.
In patients with low memory test scores, stem cells could not generate new nerve cells in laboratory cultures, but in patients with normal memory scores, stem cells were able to proliferate. That showed, for the first time, a clear correlation between patient’s memory and the ability of their stem cells to generate new nerve cells.